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The age-old debate – Nature v Nurture

“It’s all in the jeans!” we used to say to each other out of the corner of our mouths, usually accompanied by a sly wink. It was Easter Coaching Week, a chore suffered by all first-class cricketers in the 1970s. You would have thought that professional sportsmen would be better served by practising their skills pre-season but no, the clubs thought it a more beneficial use of our time to offer coaching courses for young kids during the Easter holidays. There were some talented youngsters on show but the majority didn’t have much of a clue. Dare I say it but my impression was that some of them had been sent against their wishes, probably in order to get them out of their parents’ hair. The point was that we could spot a lad with any talent a mile away. Usually it would take merely one ball, sometimes two, to gauge whether the boy had potential or would never make a cricketer in a month of Sundays. Hence the damning verdict. The joke – all right, not much of a joke but bear with me – encapsulated a truism within a pun. Genes make us what we are and of course, if you stretch a point, genes are to be found in jeans. Ha ha, very funny. But let us examine the old adage here, the perennial debate between nature and nurture.

Basically, we ask ourselves, are we the product of our parents’ genes or the legacy of our upbringing? It is a subject that has fascinated me for years. My father was a good amateur footballer in his day. My mother played tennis with enthusiasm and no little skill well into her 70s. Ergo, I was good enough to play county cricket. Really? Was it because my parents had passed down the hand-eye coordination, so integral in any ball-playing game, to their son as an accident of birth or was it because my brother and I played endless games of cricket and football in the back garden with our parents’ wholehearted encouragement and blessing? We must have had their blessing in view of the devastation we wreaked on the flora and vegetation. In short, can a cricketer be made or does he have to be born to play? The same applies to a musician, an artist, a mathematician, a doctor, a businessman, an….anybody.

I read an interesting book recently, Blueprint: How DNA Makes US Who We Are. Catchy title, eh! Actually, I lie. I did not read it at all. But I did read the review and several points caught my eye. The author had postulated this thesis. A baby is born of a family of lazy, fat, slugabeds who eat all the wrong food and spend their time on the sofa in front of the television. For reasons we shall not go into, the baby is given up at birth for adoption. The new parents are both slim, healthy, active and fitness-conscious. They eat carefully and sensibly, they read all the right books on good parenting and bring the child up in a loving and secure environment. The adopted baby grows into a slim, healthy, energetic young adult with the prospect of a long and robust life ahead. Wrong! So says the author (a professor of psychology, incidentally). All the books, all the advice, all the articles and programmes, all the research, all the received wisdom count for no more than a hill of beans, he maintains. No matter how hard you fight your DNA, there’s no escaping it in the end. That’s why we come more and more to resemble our parents the older we get. He then made this eye-popping assertion: “Mothers matter but they don’t make a difference.” My own mother would turn in her grave if she heard that. The author claimed that the ancient battle between Nature and Nurture has already been won and lost. Nature is the emphatic victor.

It occurred to me that the author was like a turkey voting for Christmas. Was he not doing himself out of a job? After all, is not the basis of psychoanalysis, as promulgated by Freud and others, the belief that our personalities are shaped by early experiences, parental influence, outside agencies, accidents and life events? Are we to believe that none of these make a scrap of difference? “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves,” said Cassius. In our DNA, he would have said, if only the Romans had concentrated on the study of biochemistry rather than warfare.

Thousands of genetic variations combine to make us what, or who, we are, apparently. There is not one rogue gene rampaging about that turns us into a murdering psychopath but a synthesis of them all that produces errant behaviour. It’s called human nature. We are all different. We cannot be pigeon-holed. You cannot, in effect, make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. No sir, your son will never play cricket for England. He will never play county cricket. He won’t be much of a club player either, 3rd XI possibly. I’m sorry to let you down but all the coaching in the world will not turn him into a Test player. Of course, we never put it as bluntly as that but the overarching ambition of some parents for their sons’ future stardom was at times breath taking.

I am not sure whether I am reassured at all by this, or even wholly convinced. I do believe I inherited a certain ability in ball games from my parents but had a cricket bat never been put in my hands and a younger brother thoughtfully produced to practise with, would I have played county cricket? Would I even have considered it? So surely the environment in which you grow up makes some sort of difference. I agree that the stars of the show are born not made but everybody can improve with practice. Nobody can pick up a golf club for the first time and shoot a 68 on a Championship course, no matter how natural his swing. Gary Player it was who famously remarked, “The more I practise, the luckier I get.” Funny that. Shane Warne would spend all day bowling in the nets and never leave until he was satisfied with the way the ball was coming out of his hand. Even the 3rd XI club player can improve with desire and application and maybe make the 2nd XI. Improvement depends on the level of commitment as well as the ceiling of ability.

Perhaps the battle has not been settled once and for all, as our learned psychologist contends. Perhaps there is more life in the Nature v Nurture debate. “Ball sense is handed down the female line,” announced my mother one day, “Your backhand, darling,” referring to me, “is just like mine!” My father, who had cooked the dinner, spluttered with indignation, “He’ll get my backhand in a minute if he doesn’t clear his plate.” You have to agree he had a point. You aren’t born with table manners; they are learnt.

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